ROME — An unprecedented Vatican internal investigation has found that Pope John Paul II knew about and overlooked sexual misconduct claims against Theodore McCarrick, instead choosing to facilitate the rise of an American prelate who would be defrocked and disgraced two decades later.

The Vatican’s report amounts to a stunning play-by-play of the kind of systemic failure that the Catholic Church normally keeps under wraps, describing how ­McCarrick amassed power and prestige in the face of rumors, and sometimes written evidence, of his sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests and teenage boys.

The report devotes a good deal of attention to John Paul II and the pivotal years of McCarrick’s rise, but it also portrays Pope Benedict XVI as trying to handle the cardinal quietly and out of the public spotlight, and Pope Francis as assuming that his predecessors had made the right judgments. It shows how U.S. bishops sanitized reports of what they knew and all but ensured that warnings would arrive at the Vatican unsubstantiated or dismissible. In Rome, church leaders found every rationale for believing a “good pastor” over a victim.

For a church that has grappled for a generation with its sexual abuse crisis, the report — 449 pages, and two years in the making — goes further than any previous effort in naming names and providing details of a coverup. Such assessments have been long requested by victims of abuse, but they are nonetheless fraught for the church, because revelations have the potential to recolor the reputations of major figures within the faith, including John Paul, who was named a saint in 2014.

“By virtue of the simple fact that this investigation had to be conducted and this report had to be written, my heart hurts for all who will be shocked, saddened, scandalized and angered by the revelations contained therein,” Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley responded to a question Feb. 22 in Vatican City about accountability among U.S. cardinals. (Reuters)

The report shows that John Paul was told in a 1999 letter that McCarrick shared a bed with young seminarians over whom he had authority. But, apparently swayed by a letter from Mc­Carrick himself denying that he’d ever had “sexual relations with any person,” the pope then gave McCarrick the biggest break of his career: an appointment as archbishop of Washington. That came after ­McCarrick was passed up for other major postings because of the accusations against him.

“Pope John Paul II became ‘convinced of the truth’ of McCarrick’s denial,” the report said.

At the time, the church considered sex by priests with other adult men to be sinful but not nearly as grave as abuse of a minor. And church leaders had not fully internalized the idea that adult seminarians could be victims of far more powerful clerics in charge of their careers.

The report appears to limit the culpability of Pope Francis, who greenlighted the investigation in 2018. The report says that Francis, before 2017, heard “only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults” and believed that the allegations had been “reviewed and rejected by John Paul II.”

The report also delves into the decision-making of Benedict XVI, during whose tenure, from 2005 to 2013, the church seemed conflicted about how to handle McCarrick. The Holy See, acting on new details from a priest, requested that McCarrick “spontaneously” withdraw as archbishop of Washington in 2006, after he reached the standard retirement age of 75. But the Vatican was also indecisive after receiving two memos from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in 2006 and 2008, that aired “concerns that a scandal could result given that the information” was in wide circulation.

Viganò suggested a canonical inquiry. His superiors were concerned as well and presented the matter to Benedict. But rather than levy overt penalties, “the decision was made to appeal to ­McCarrick’s conscience and ecclesial spirit,” requesting that he keep a low profile and reduce travel in the church’s name.

McCarrick largely ignored the request. By that time, he had earned clout as a formidable church fundraiser, giving money not just to charities but also directly to other clerics — including those in the Vatican who would have been involved in assessing the misconduct claims against him.

According to the report, there was no evidence “that Mc­Carrick’s customary gift-giving and donations impacted significant decisions made by the Holy See regarding McCarrick during any period.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of the abuse-tracking site ­BishopAccountability.org, said in a statement that the report was “impressive” — “the most significant document on the abuse crisis to come from the Church.” She said the report’s greatest failure was giving Francis a pass, under the premise that he hadn’t been properly informed or knew only that there had been rumors.

“Plausible deniability must end for popes and bishops,” she said. “They are responsible for reading the abuse files and for correcting the negligent or complicit acts of their predecessors.”

By the 1990s, there was growing evidence pointing to Mc­Carrick’s misconduct: A handful of seminarians confided in a New Jersey bishop, describing how McCarrick would devise ways to share a bed with them; sometimes, the encounters involved explicit sexual activity, according to the testimony of one victim described in the report. Anonymous letters were also sent to various prelates, including Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, saying McCarrick had a “proclivity for young boys.”

The church initially did little to dig deeper. The Vatican’s then-
ambassador to the United States “destroyed” his copies of the letter. And O’Connor, in several sympathetic notes, alerted McCarrick of the letter-writing, saying: “This stuff drives me crazy. I hate to send it to you, but would want you to do the same for me.”

But by 1999, O’Connor was concerned enough that he wrote a lengthy letter to the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, describing “grave fears” about what might happen if McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, were to receive a promotion. The letter, citing information from “impeccable authorities,” said McCarrick would share a bed with seminarians; O’Connor attached the anonymous letters as well.

But higher-ups at the Vatican found reasons to be dismissive. One prelate reasoned that the events seemed to have occurred long in the past. Another said the allegations could just be rumors.

By the time McCarrick wrote his own entreaty to the pope’s office, the Vatican, at the request of John Paul, had also sought input from four U.S. bishops, asking what they knew. The report released Tuesday said three of the bishops “provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See.” Bishop Edward Hughes, who had received several explicit accounts from McCarrick’s adult victims, wrote that “I have no direct, factual information concerning any moral weakness shown by Archbishop Mc­Carrick, either in the past or in the present.”

“There are only two instances where I have known of any allegations against the Archbishop,” Hughes wrote. “Both allegations came from priests who were guilty of their own moral lapses.”

Hughes died in 2012.

The report, in something of an explanation for why John Paul might have believed McCarrick, describes how the pontiff and the then-bishop, though ideologically different, developed a fondness for each other after sharing time on overseas trips. Priests in communist Poland, the pope’s native country, were sometimes subject to smear campaigns, something else that could have influenced the pope’s handling of McCarrick.

“McCarrick successfully deceived the pope,” said George Weigel, a John Paul biographer.

It was not until 2018 that ­McCarrick was officially removed from public ministry, after the New York Archdiocese publicly revealed a credible allegation of abuse against a minor that dated back to the 1970s. At the same time, two New Jersey dioceses revealed that they had reached settlements with adult victims.

The diocese of Metuchen, McCarrick’s first bishop posting, on Tuesday released a statement saying it had previously launched its own internal inquiry and provided the research to Vatican investigators. The statement said Metuchen found seven people who alleged abuse by McCarrick when they were adults. After it submitted the report to Rome, the diocese wrote, four additional claims of abuse against minors came in.

Robert Ciolek, a former priest — and now lawyer — who reached a 2005 settlement with the church related to McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, said Tuesday that he was grateful to the report’s authors but disappointed to see how little Vatican leaders had dug into misconduct allegations at the time.

“They were not interested in further probing. Even if it was just abuse of authority, they’re considering [McCarrick] for one of the most powerful positions in the church. Shouldn’t they do due diligence?” he told The Washington Post.

Ciolek said the report made clear that church leaders “were blind to” the idea that abuse of power was a problem. Even though this was another era, Ciolek said, when the fallout of such abuse wasn’t as widely understood, “shouldn’t it have been significant for the church? Who is supposed to be the moral leader?”

Boorstein reported from Washington and Pulliam Bailey from New York. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.